Boehner’s move seems to have come out of a typical Disney teen drama. Boehner invites Bibi to the party, even though Barack is not on the best of terms with Bibi. How is this going to play out?
The Speaker of the House, Republican leader John Boehner, invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak at a joint session of the US Congress on March 3. There is no doubt that Congress has the power to arrange for joint sessions and invite foreign leaders to address them, but it has always been the convention to coordinate such an invitation with the executive branch. However, Speaker Boehner departed from this well-established practice. Boehner’s move was clearly a breach of common courtesy toward the president and White House. Further, the Netanyahu administration has departed from the expected protocol for the leader of one country to contact the leader of the country he is visiting.
There are many vested interests surrounding Netanyahu’s impending visit. First, Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress as a way to push for more sanctions on Iran. This is in direct defiance of President Obama’s position. The President specifically asked Congress in his State of the Union address to give him more time regarding the issue of Iranian sanctions. Currently, the US and its international partners are in deep talks about the effect of sanctions in Iran and how to resolve open issues through diplomacy. Prime Minister Netanyahu hopes that he can convince Congress to impose more sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, since the threat of a nuclear-equipped Iran is a major concern for Israelis.
Secondly, coming to America will help Netanyahu politically, since Israeli elections are to be held two weeks from Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Unlike candidates running against him, Netanyahu has the opportunity to speak before the US Congress and to the American people, an action that the Israeli people will probably recognize and appreciate. Thus, the meeting most likely won’t hurt Prime Minister Netanyahu’s chances in the elections back home.
Even though Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu came at a crucial time from an election standpoint, it most likely won’t be a game changer for America’s official stance on Iran policy. President Obama does not agree with Congress on imposing more sanctions on Iran, since this would undermine diplomacy. Increasing the number of sanctions would be adding more fuel to the fire, encouraging Iran to resort to a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has said that the US and its international partners are leaning more towarddiplomacy than sanctions.
Therefore, other than possibly helping Netanyahu’s election chances at home, Netanyahu coming to America may not be anything more than good optics played out in local Israeli and international media. Furthermore, it seems like Speaker Boehner is using Netanyahu to influence President Obama’s foreign policy for his own Republican members’ partisan political ends. If Netanyahu really wants the US to make headway on Iran talks, he should be meeting with President Obama, not Congress. However, he may have lost that opportunity when he “shook” hands with Boehner. The White House issued a statement saying that it is common practice that the president does not meet with heads of states close to election time, to avoid the appearance of influencing a country’s democratic election process.
President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have an uneasy relationship, and this off-the-cuff taking of the podium in the US House by Netanyahu may have just widened the chasm a bit more. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama already have fundamental differences in their views on Iran and nuclear power. Netanyahu believes that Iran is an irrational regime and is more threatening than North Korea, so sanctions are of the utmost importance. On the other hand, President Obama believes that Iran is not North Korea, and should not be treated like North Korea. The US recognizes that existing sanctions have unduly affected the Iranian populace and more sanctions would only help the Iranian regime generate popular disenchantment and discontent against the West.
While the White House may not have embraced Netanyahu’s visit, it will help Netanyahu win approval back home, which he will certainly play up against his domestic political opponents. However, his meeting with Congress will not sway the White House on their policy on Iran. Rather, Boehner’s action of inviting Netanyahu without the White House’s nod could be construed as a slap in the face on President Obama and his authority, and could potentially escalate the already existing partisan tensions on Capitol Hill.
This high-stakes political game will play out on March 3 and we will see what is to come. Will Boehner and Bibi remain friends? Will Barack and Bibi set aside their differences?